“El Nino” is a Punk

We’re on our way home when the text comes in. “Be REALLY careful driving.” It’s from our neighbor, Claudio, aka “Dad.”

He was nice enough to watch the dogs while Natalie and I went up to the San Diego airport to drop off my friend Sherri who came to visit. But since this is the second time he’s cautioned us today, I can tell he’s pretty worried.

“Why is everyone so freaked out by the rain?” I ask Natalie, bewildered as we make our way back toward the border.

“Oh, it’s just Californians” she explains matter-of-factly. “They’re not used to driving in it.”

Growing up in Alabama and Louisiana, rain was often part of everyday life. But here in SoCal and Baja California, it’s an anomaly and apparently something that causes a lot of concern and traffic accidents.

“But it’s just rain,” I say.

“It’s like how Southerners react to snow,” she counters.

Immediately I have a flash back of my first time driving in the snow in Virginia. When I misjudged the time it would take to slow down and make a turn and how I wasn’t able to. How my car skidded right up over the curb and directly onto the main road – which by the grace of God somehow had no on-coming traffic at that moment.

“Well, I guess that makes sense,” I acknowledge.

But inwardly I still think the reaction to rain (people not leaving their houses and being afraid to drive anywhere) is a bit over the top. I mean, it’s just a little water people.

We cross over into Mexico and then traffic comes to a stop. We’ve come to expect exceedingly long wait times heading into the U.S., but coming into Mexico is usually smooth sailing. Until today.

We inch along for about 30 minutes chalking it up to nothing more than some wicked rush-hour traffic until I see it: a section of the road that is completely covered in water and the wake of cars that are haphazardly trying to pass through it.

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It’s hard to tell how deep the water is but it’s completely covering the wheels of most of the cars, which makes me thankful we’re in an SUV.

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After safely crossing this “shallow river” we continue on the main road where I began to really appreciate Claudio’s concern for our safety. Turns out “El Nino” is no joke. And also that Mexican infrastructure is not made for substantial rain.

Muddy water pooled along the edges of the lanes makes hydroplaning a serious threat and newly deposited boulders strewn across the road have me concerned about landslides.

Just when we make it back to our house safely we get the news. We expected that the skylight in our entryway would be leaking (which has happened before and why we keep a spare bucket nearby).

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But in addition, all the excessive rain that has saturated the ground has seeped through a crack in the concrete walls completely flooding my bathroom and the utility closet.

When we talk to friends and neighbors later we hear similar reports; flooded houses and people stranded because of impassable, muddy roads. Even the beach where Natalie and I run is a mess. Massive waves took out some of the wooden umbrellas and tables and trash is strewn all along the sand.

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Needless to say, I now understand the impact a “little rain” can have here. And I also think “El Nino” deserves a spanking for all the havoc he’s wreacked.

But more than anything I’ve come to a greater respect and appreciation for water.

On one hand we are surrounded by it – the Pacific ocean is literally right off our back patio. And on the other hand, we have to plan ahead to ensure we have what we need to live. You see, the water is not drinkable in Mexico. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you think about needing enough water for two adults and two dogs every day.

Before we left Virginia I purchased a top-of-the-line water filter that can basically take scummy pond water and make it potable.

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It’s worked well, but it only filters about a gallon an hour. So, at least 6 times a day, I’m refilling the container, filling up our pitcher in the fridge and also allocating some water for the dogs.

If I fall behind in doing so, we run out. Which isn’t the end of the world, because we can always go to a “tienda” to buy some, but it does keep water at the forefront of my mind throughout my day.

In Mexico, I never leave the house without a water bottle. And when I go to the U.S. I always feel so grateful to have fresh, free water available at fountains in nearly every store – something I didn’t really appreciate before.

Two months into our time here, I’m pretty comfortable with the water situation. It’s been a long time since I’ve accidentally swallowed a big gulp after brushing my teeth (which always makes me feel sick – though whether it’s a physical or psychosomatic response, I’m not sure). Refilling the water filter is habitual these days and most of the time we have more than enough.

But beyond that, I’ve fallen in love…with the ocean.

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It’s something I admire each day on my porch or through my dinning room windows. I love to gaze at the beauty of sunlight dancing on the waves like diamonds. I breathe in the ocean air, walk along it’s rocky beaches and run along it’s sandy ones. The sound of the crashing waves has become a part of my life, the rhythm as natural as breathing to me, the sound calming my spirit and lulling me to sleep each night.

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Since November, I’ve enjoyed the presence of the ocean. But last week, in honor of a new year and my friend Sherri’s birthday, I opted for a more tangible experience –completely immersing myself in it.

For the last decade, nearly every January, I’ve had people invite me to do the “Polar Plunge” in Virginia Beach. And every year I’ve politely declined. Maybe because I’m a chicken, but also because running into freezing cold water in the middle of winter sounds miserable.

But this January I took the plunge on my own volition. See the video below.

Yes, it was a physical plunge (which wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be and was actually quite refreshing). But more importantly, and on a much deeper level, I believe it was symbolic of a spiritual plunge. A willingness to go into deeper waters. To embrace a little discomfort. To explore more of who God is and the world He’s created. And to experience what I might otherwise just admire from afar.

On this “Great Enlivening,” I sense God calling me beyond the comfort and security of the shore. He’s asked me to get out of the boat and leave behind my life raft. To be completely dependent on Him. Which, in all honestly, is a bit scary.

I’ve seen the power of the waves crashing and the fierceness with which they can cause destruction. I’ve questioned whether or not I have the skills to swim in the midst of the inevitable storms I’ll face.

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Yet, God continues to tell me to trust Him. That it’s not about my ability but my obedience. That if I listen to His still, small voice, He will sustain me, tell me which wave to ride and when to dive deep.

And also, that if I’m willing to step out on faith, I’ll get to experience the thrill of walking on water.


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There are a lot of amazing things about living in Mexico. Since we arrived, Rachel and I have met some of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever known. We’ve eaten amazing food, learned the language (ish), and enjoyed the peace that comes with a slower pace of life. But living the expatriate life is not without it’s challenges, and today is no exception.

In fact, the biggest challenge we’ve faced since living here has nothing to do with Mexico, and has everything to do with the United States. Rachel and I live about thirty miles from the US/Mexico border crossing, and we cross it pretty frequently. There are certain things that we just can’t do in Mexico; for instance, buy dog food, go to Trader Joes, drink Starbucks and withdraw from an ATM that dispenses dollars, rather than pesos (dollars are preferred in this part of Mexico). So every week or two, we plan a day to drive up to San Diego and do our chores.

Crossing the border into the States is completely and utterly unpredictable. It can take us anywhere from five minutes to five hours to drive through the customs and border patrol inspection stations. We’ve tried to logically deduce when there will be the least amount of back up based on commuter schedules, weather and holidays; but it’s of no use. So we always plan about three hours of “wiggle room” into our schedule, just to be safe.

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So today, Rachel and I are making our way to the border, and I’m praying for smooth sailing. Unfortunately, we pull up into the line, and it’s bad… really bad. We’ve learned to gauge our wait times based on our distance to the checkpoint – a quarter mile = 1 hour, a half mile = 2 hours, more than a half mile = at least 3 hours.   And today, we’re in the longest line I’ve ever seen.

And the longer the line, the more vendors there are on the street. There are hundreds of people selling anything you could ever want: burritos, blankets, NFL jerseys, statues of the Virgin Mary, tostilocos (pic below), jewelry and iPhone cases, to name a few.

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“I guess this wasn’t the best day to bring the dogs with us!” I say jokingly to Rachel. We usually leave the pups at home, but today we have a ton of errands to run, so the they are coming along for the ride. This is their first time crossing the border back into the States, and I’m a little nervous that all of the vendors surrounding our car are going to freak them out.

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“Oh my gosh, look at Nimitz’s face!” Rachel exclaims as she snaps a photo of him. He’s seen the vendors and is giving his best “What the hell is this?” look.

 

“Alright, I guess we just have to settle in and wait.” I lament. We’ve crossed the border enough to know that there’s no use in getting frustrated, especially not this early in the game.

But today, the wait is taking longer than I expected. I look at the clock and realize we’ve been sitting here for well over two hours, and we’re still at least a half-mile away from the inspection station.

“Ugh… This is the worst!” I exclaim and put my head on the steering wheel.

“I know,” Rachel says, “and now I have to pee.” This isn’t good. The border crossing is basically a line of cars on a highway with some pop-up vendor stands along the side. Finding a restroom, let alone a clean one, could prove to be tricky. “I’m going to get out and see if any of these vendors have a bathroom.”

“Ok,” I say, “I’ll be here!”

I watch Rachel walk over to one of the vendors, and it seems like she’s having some luck; until I see her turn around and walk back to the car.

“What happened?” I say.

“They wanted 75 pesos for the bathroom! Can you believe that? That’s like 5 dollars, and I am not paying 5 bucks to use the bathroom.”

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She gets back in the car and we continue to wait, but word of Rachel’s full bladder must have traveled quickly, because a few seconds later, a woman approaches our car window and lets us know that there’s another restroom that only costs a dollar. Armed with this information, she grabs a dollar and walks back over to the bathroom lady. I see her go inside and when she gets back to the car she tells me that on her second visit the woman changed the amount from 75 pesos to 75 cents. I’d like to think this was a simple miscommunication, but I think we know better.

We sit in silence for a few moments, looking around at the miserable line, before I turn to Rachel and say, “Well, it’s clear that we’re going to be stuck in this line for the rest of our lives, so we should at least eat something!”

I see a woman walking down the street selling churros and I flag her down. If you haven’t had churros, they’re these deliciously amazing strips of dough, deep-fried and then covered in sugar. “Yes, I think this is what we need!”

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We sit in the car and start munching on our churros, when suddenly, the entire mood in the car shifts. We start laughing and joking about the reality of our lives in Mexico. Then, I pull up to another vendor and ask for a bottle of water, I jokingly turn to Rachel and say “I wish I was ordering tequila instead of water!”

She gives me a mischievous look and says, “maybe we can order tequila… this is Mexico after all!” She rolls down her window and asks a woman if she has tequila. The woman replies with a laugh and says, “No!, Yo no tengo tequila!” but when she sees the disappointed looks on our faces she breaks into perfect English and says, “but if you seriously want tequila, I’ll get someone to bring it to you.”

We laugh and decide that taking a tequila shot from a random stranger on the street is probably a good way to get kidnapped, so we decline. But then Rachel turns to me and says, “Wait! I have an open bottle of two-buck chuck in the backseat from last night’s fiesta!” We have a quick discussion about the legality of drinking a bit of wine while in the car, and decide that since we’re only moving about 15 feet every 20 minutes, a small sip will probably be ok.  We start rifling through the glove box and find a couple of pre-wrapped glasses that we undoubtedly snagged from a hotel during our road trip. We each pour a splash of wine, grab a churro and toast to our new life.

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We spend the next hour talking, laughing and doing a lot of people watching. We even discuss the logistics of starting a flash mob at the border, and wonder if we would end up on YouTube, or in jail.   But finally, after three and a half hours, it’s our turn at the inspection station. At this point, the two-buck chuck and the churros have worn off. But the way we turned something miserable into something enjoyable will stick with me. It’s a skill we’ll need a lot over the next year as we travel the globe.

So as we pull through the inspection station and into San Diego, I can’t help but think – of all the ways I imagined starting 2016, this wasn’t one of them. I never thought I’d be living as an expat, and preparing for a journey around the world. But today, even with my four-hour commute, this is the only place I want to be.

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It’s our new favorite place in Mexico. Not just because of the cozy, quaint interior or friendly staff, but because they serve the best espresso we’ve ever had.

Passione Caffé is on our way home from yoga and since caffeine is normally required to revive us from that work out, we’ve been frequenting it a lot lately.

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There’s something about taking the time to sit at a table and order a cup of coffee that comes in a real china cup. About savoring each sip, being present and having meaningful conversation with another person.

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Sharing a house and a car, Natalie and I spend just about every waking moment together, but in this place we are free from distractions and our conversation often goes deep. To the desires of our heart – our hopes to one day be remarried and have kids. To the work God has done and is doing in our lives – how much we’ve grown over the last year and also how much more refining we need. To where we think He is leading and where we think we’ll end up – will we come back to Virginia? Mexico? Some other part of the world?

At this rightly named “Caffé” we’re drinking espresso, but I like to think we’re sipping on a little cup of “passion.” We share our hopes and dreams and the combination of conversation and coffee further whets our appetite for the adventure God has in store for us, albeit largely unknown.

Yesterday as we sipped, we reflected on the group of gals we had just met. They came down from San Diego to surf for a few days and stopped in to take a yoga class.

Always interested in meeting new people (especially fellow 30-somethings since there aren’t many of us here), Natalie and I struck up a conversation with some of these ladies after class.

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After the usual niceties, we faced the inevitable questions about what we do for a living and how we came to live in Mexico. Three months into this adventure, we’ve honed a solid, 30-second explanation. It goes something like this:

“We both went through a divorce in the last 18 months. We own our own business, don’t have kids and have enough money saved up after working for a decade to take a year off. So, we cashed out our retirement funds, packed up and left nearly everything behind in Virginia, drove across the country and are living here in Baja California for three months. The plan is to see 7 continents over the next 8 months or so.”

This usually elicits overwhelmingly enthusiastic approval or confessions of jealousy from whoever we are talking to. But, if it doesn’t and we sense the person is not totally on board with our plan we then add:

“We’re young, single and we realized that we only have a short window of time to do this – especially if we end up getting married and having kids. So, why not now? Worst case scenario, we have the most amazing time seeing the world and when we get back, we settle down, get jobs and make more money.”

This usually does the trick; as even the most sensible and risk-averse person has a hard time disagreeing with this logic.

In the case of these San Diego surfer girls, we were far from crazy. Word must have traveled among the group in a matter of minutes because after we said goodbye and began to drive away, they waved at us to roll down the window.

“You girls are an inspiration!” they shouted enthusiastically.

It felt good to hear that. I mean, who doesn’t want the affirmation and approval of others? Especially when you’re a recovering type-A, East coast performance addict and it’s coming from a bunch of chilled-out Californians. But 20 minutes later at Passione Caffé I felt differently.

As Natalie and I pontificated over coffee it all became so clear. This trip is much more than two divorced girls trading in their broken hearts and marriages for a trip around the world. It’s more than impressing people with our courage to step out of our comfort zones and take risks. It’s more than the cool places we will see along the way. That may be part of it, but what this trip is really about is following God. Being obedient to where He is calling us. So that in the end, HIS purpose is accomplished and HE gets the glory – not us.

Glory

“While our plan is to see 7 continents, that may not be where God leads us,” I tell Natalie. “The truth is that we really don’t have a clue as to where we’ll be or what our lives will look like in 6 months to a year.” She nods in agreement. And then the irony of it all occurs to me and I laugh out loud.

“What’s so funny?” she asks.

“As a coach, the FIRST question I ask my clients to clearly define is, “What do you want your life to be like in 6 to 12 months,” I say. “And here I am and I don’t have a clue how to answer that question!”

We laugh some more but what then occurs to me is that perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. In a society where we are told to make our destiny and do what makes us happy, and at a time when we are encouraged to set goals for the new year, maybe the question isn’t “Where do I want to be in the next 6-12 months.” It’s “Where does God want me to be?”

I know that in order to get that answer I have to slow down. I have to intentionally seek God and silence the distractions around me. And if I want to actually do what God wants me to do and be who He wants me to be, I have to sacrifice and surrender my own will.

That’s much easier said than done. But in the end, God’s will is the absolute best thing.

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So, for 2016, I’m not going to set a bunch of goals about what I think I should be accomplishing. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one goal – uniformity with God’s will.

Today, as I sip another espresso at Passione Caffé, I feel a newfound passion. A new clarity about my purpose. And a new hope that if I’m truly conformed to the will of God, this “Great Enlivening” may look very different from what I originally thought or what we might plan, but it will be infinitely better.


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The Merging of Two Worlds

I’ve never actually made gumbo, which as an LSU graduate and the daughter of two Louisiana-born natives is embarrassing to admit and liable to have my “Cajun card” in question.

That’s why when my parents came to visit, I figured it was the perfect time to learn. Not to mention a great opportunity to introduce a little Cajun culture to some of our new friends in Mexico.

While Natalie and I have met some wonderful people here, two in particular have been unbelievable blessings to us; Claudio, our neighbor, and Susana, our Spanish teacher.

Meet Claudio.

Claudio

An Italian-born Frenchman, Claudio speaks 5 languages, and spends his weekends riding his Harley motorcycle with Solo Angeles (formally Hells Angels of Tijuana.)

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Despite the seemingly tough exterior, he’s a big softy at heart with a flair for the finer things in life. He makes incredible pasta dishes, ice cream sundaes and cappuccino (which he drinks each morning with his chocolate croissant), and has taken us under his wing to ensure we don’t starve, get into too much trouble and also, that we have the complete Baja California experience.

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A father-figure of sorts, he is a 15 year-old boy in a 67-year-old body and just as funny and entertaining as he is generous. He has served as our tour-guide, chauffeur (making several trips with us to the border, the San Diego airport and multiple stores around town) and also our stand-in dog sitter. Nimitz and Mugsy – especially Mugsy – adore him. (Probably because he feeds them pasta too!) 🙂

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He keeps threatening that it’s time for us to leave the nest and “fly on our own” but we think he secretly enjoys having two stand-in daughters to look after. At least we hope he does!

Meet Susana.

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A blonde German born in Mexico, Susana speaks 4 languages (yes, Natalie and I clearly need to up our language skills) and is as sweet as a sugar cookie. She gave us a hefty discount on our lessons so that we could afford to see her 3 times a week. An excellent Spanish instructor, she not only teaches us the language but also expertly educates us on pronunciation and Mexican culture so that we don’t embarrass ourselves too badly while here.

She and her husband, Jose, a gregarious local with an infectious laugh, treated us to a delicious dinner last week at their favorite restaurant. They have also escorted us to another border crossing, are a wealth of information about the local area and continually offer to help us in any way they can.

Needless to say, these folks have truly helped us over the last 6 weeks and while I know a dinner party isn’t much, I figured it would be a small way to say thanks.

After picking up my parents from the San Diego airport, we did a grocery store run to get all the necessary ingredients to make this most authentic Louisiana dish: Okra, chicken, sausage, shrimp, green peppers and onions, celery, rice, and also oil and flour for the roux (which starts the whole process and largely determines the flavor).

“You don’t have vegetable oil and flour?” my Dad asks when he sees them in my cart.  “Only olive oil,” I answer without hesitation. How do I explain to him that my cooking these days comes down to scrambling eggs, stir-frying veggies, throwing a frozen pizza in the oven or microwaving a bag of popcorn?

“Do you even have Tony’s?” he asks with a look of serious concern. “Of course I do,” I respond. (Tony Chachere’s cajun seasoning is a household staple for all Louisianians).  “I may not know how to cook Gumbo, but I haven’t forgotten my roots,” I reassure him.

“Ok, good.  Well we brought the file seasoning (ground sassafras leaves) from home,” he tells me.

Getting all the ingredients in San Diego cost a small fortune, but apart from a tiny bit of crab boil we couldn’t find, we had everything we needed. My mom chopped all the veggies and my Dad supervised with making the roux and coaching me on how to put it all together.

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It was a lot more labor intensive than I imagined, but after several hours, I officially made my first gumbo!

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Now, while my name may be Rachel, I’ve never pretended my last name is Ray. But there was a time in my life when cooking and hosting get-togethers was a regular occurrence. When I tried new recipes looking for the ones that would “wow” my guests.  When I loved pulling out my white china, setting placemats, arranging napkins with rings and silverware on a beautiful table that could easily seat 10.

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Before I’d bring the hot dishes to the server, I’d invite guests to sip wine and sample appetizers on our two-piece wine bar. The music and lighting would be soft. The temperature just right. And if I did my job as a hostess correctly, no one had to ask me for anything throughout the course of the night and no one left without a fully belly, a huge hug and the warm feeling of being loved inside.

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But all of that changed a few years ago.

Between a divorce, 4 moves and paring down from a 4-bedroom house to a single bedroom worth of stuff, I didn’t have the space nor the energy to entertain. But over the last few months I’ve realized how much I missed opening my home and sharing a meal with others. So, I vowed that when I got settled into our place in Mexico (and actually knew some people to invite), I’d start doing so again.

Of course, I don’t have any fine china here. Forget about a wine bar or server. I don’t even have 6 place settings that match! Our rustic wooden table only seats 6, so we squeezed in a folding chair I found stashed in my closet and asked Claudio to bring over two more wine glass so we would have enough. (I already had to borrow a pot from him to cook the gumbo!)

The plan was to make this incredibly yummy baked cheese appetizer but apparently Mexicans don’t eat havarti cheese or crescent rolls since I couldn’t find them anywhere. So, we we settled for cheese, crackers and apples which I displayed on the only available space in our tiny kitchen – the side of the counter.

I insisted on fixing everyone’s plate, not only because I was born and bred to embrace Southern hospitality, but also because once everyone was seated around the table, there wouldn’t be enough room for anyone to get up again.

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Finally, we were all gathered snuggly around the table. There was a hodgepodge of dishes and glasses and a random assortment of silverware placed neatly on our make-shift paper-towel napkins.

It wasn’t fancy or impressive, but as I asked everyone to bow their head so I could pray, I was thankful. Thankful for each person. Thankful for the blessing of each life and the fact that I know mine is richer for having the privilege of sharing it with these people. And that’s exactly what I said.

As we ate, drank, shared stories and laughed, I realized it was the merging of two worlds – my upbringing and family life back home and the new community of friends I’ve made here. And that despite the differences in ages, cultures, language and religion, sitting around that table we were a family of sorts.

Considering everyone wanted seconds, I think the gumbo was a hit. And based on the feedback from Claudio and Susana the next day, they did indeed leave with full stomachs and full hearts. My only regret is that I was so caught up enjoying the evening that I forgot to take pictures!

Oh well. I know the memory of that night will not soon fade. Nor will my relationships with Claudio, Susana and Jose. And even though they were only here for 5 days, I know my Mom and Dad feel the same way.

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This Christmas day I’ll be sitting at my parent’s large dinning room table with perfectly matching place settings, a gorgeous centerpiece and an exquisite meal that will rival anything from a 5-star restaurant. And while that will be wonderful, what I am most looking forward to are the people who will be around me; my family. These are the people who have been with me through countless ups and downs, know all of my failings and continue to love and support me unconditionally despite them all. Even when I do crazy things like cash out my retirement to spend a year traveling the world.

What I’ve come to understand after selling, packing up and leaving nearly everything I own behind is that the stuff in life doesn’t really matter, the people do.

Oh sure, there’s nothing wrong with nice things and I can certainly appreciate ambience and impressive decor in the moment.  But what ultimately makes my life rich and beautiful are the people I spend it with. The people who laugh with me and cry with me.  The people who disagree with me and love me enough to challenge me. And the people who will always be in my heart, even if we are thousands of miles apart.

The only real downside to this whole “Enlivening Adventure” is that I probably won’t get to see my family much over the next year as Natalie and I galavant across the globe, which is why I’m going to cherish every moment I have with them this Christmas.

The good news is that through people like Claudio and Susana, God has shown me that family can have a broader definition.  And that if I’m willing to embrace those He divinely connects me with (and maybe even cook another Cajun meal or two), I’ll have family wherever I go.

 

 

 

 

Finding the Soft Edge

“Just a little bit farther…” Hannah says as she grabs my foot and places it in my hand. I feel all of my muscles stretching deeply from my shoulder through my hip; and my heart starts to pound. I’m not so sure that my body was meant to bend this way. My peripheral vision is getting a little sparkly, so I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am thankful for this yoga class.   Although as I hold this pose, I’m struggling to remember why…

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Rachel and I met Hannah the week that we arrived in Mexico. She’s a 30-something, former gymnast with the flexibility of Gumby who owns a yoga studio nearby. Yoga is something I’ve literally never been interested in. I always assumed that it was more breathing and drum circles than real exercise. So when I met Hannah, I had zero desire to take her class.

But when she invited us to a class at a winery in the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), followed by a wine tasting and five course meal, how could I say no? The Valle de Guadalupe is the Mexican version of Napa Valley, and it’s about forty-five minutes from our house.

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Yoga in the Vineyard

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The reward for doing Yoga in the Vineyard…

The outdoor setting was serene and peaceful, so I went into the class expecting it to be easy. After all, I’m the kind of girl who appreciates a tough workout – running, volleyball, swimming – as long as I end up sweaty and exhausted, count me in! But Hannah’s class was challenging… to put it mildly. In fact, I spent the entire hour on the verge of collapse.

Now, I think I’m in pretty good shape, so the fact that I struggled so much during that first class lit a fire of determination and stubbornness inside me. I decided to master this yoga business, even if it’s the last thing I do in Mexico!

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So after several weeks of downward dogs, bound pigeons and cow faced poses, I can safely say that Rachel and I are getting… better! And we definitely have a new appreciation for yoga.

“Now breathe, and press your hips toward the sky…” Hannah says as she transitions us into another challenging pose. As I move into position, I hear someone tip over behind me. I breathe a sigh of relief, because although I know that Yoga isn’t a competition, I’m pretty happy I’m still standing.

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“And now take a soft child’s pose…” Hannah says in her calming tone.

“Hallelujah,” I think to myself, “I thought I was going to pass out in that last position.”

I lay on the mat and as my breath starts to come back to me, so does my appreciation for this class. My mind drifts to the Thanksgiving dinner that Rachel and I had a couple weeks ago. It was completely atypical and not very American. For the first time in years I wasn’t surrounded by friends and family, and I didn’t spend the whole day cooking. In fact, it was just Rachel and I, and we went out to eat at a local steakhouse.   We listened to mariachi music and ate tortillas soaked in butter. Instead of pumpkin pie, we finished the evening with a slice of dulce de leche cake. It was fantastic.

 

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At thanksgiving we talked about all of the things we’re thankful for in this new season of life – this amazing adventure, the support of friends and family, the beautiful home we’re staying in, two sweet dogs, and yes, this yoga class. Aside from giving us an amazing workout four days a week, it’s a wonderful new experience that pushed us out of our comfort zone.

Hannah snaps me back to reality when she says it’s time for another challenging pose. As we get into position, she encourages us to find the “soft edge” in our exercise. She describes this edge as a place just beyond comfort. It’s a place where we’re stretched beyond our norm and forced to grow. While I know she’s talking about our muscles, I can’t help but think that maybe the “soft edge” applies to everything in this life.

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I contemplate this thought as Hannah finally puts us into the Shavasana (aka- the corpse pose), signaling the end of the practice. In this pose, you lay on your back, close your eyes, and rest. It’s simple but powerful, and it’s basically the best time of the day.

As I lay here on the floor, I think through the concept of the soft edge and what it represents – growth, determination, and continual learning. I like that idea. What if I shifted my perspective and pushed myself to the soft edge in every facet of my life, like self-awareness, faith, and relationships? I’m not entirely sure what that would look like, but maybe that’s what this adventure is all about: discovering the soft edges in life that will gently push me to grow into the beautiful person God designed.

In Mexico, I’m an Amazon

At 5’7” I’m slightly above the average height of women in America. In Mexico, I’m practically an amazon. A white giant among a dark-skinned population of people who are well…for the most part, fairly petite.

This is especially obvious to me when I’m at the gym. And by gym, I mean a single room that is no more than 20 feet wide by 30 feet long. There are no weights or machines. Just a wall of mirrors, 20 or so handmade wooden steps piled in the corner and a small counter in the back with a fridge and blender where you can purchase a sports drink of sorts (I’ve never tried one though it seems most of the people there consume one every day).

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Natalie noticed a sign for Zumba the second day we were in Mexico, and since I’m mildly obsessed with dancing, I had to check it out. Turns out that Zumba is really a high-paced step aerobics class, but it’s the only workout facility within 25 minutes and at $1 a class, it’s hard to beat the price.

An early bird by nature, I decided to go to the 6:30 a.m. class hoping to get a good workout and “blend in.” Being nearly a head taller than everyone else made that a little challenging, not to mention my inability to understand Spanish and the rapid step changes that seemed to come every 12 -15 seconds.

My concern was less about looking like an idiot and more about accidentally kicking the woman behind me or smacking the girl next to me in the face with my flailing arm. Long limbs served me well as a basketball player, but in a Mexican aerobic class they are potentially deadly weapons. Especially here. Fire codes either don’t exist or are irrelevant. You pay and you get to participate in class….even if that means squeezing 20 people in a room that does not comfortably hold more than 10. And even then it’s tight.

Now, a few weeks and a dozen classes later, I’m a regular. The “Senoras” greet me with a bright “Buenos dias” when I arrive and then promptly point to which wooden step I’m “assigned to.” Apparently I’m not the only once concerned about controlling my lengthy limbs. And yet, when I inadvertently make contact with someone around me – which usually happens at least once a class – they just smile when I say “perdon” and shrug it off. They don’t expect me to be any different than I am.

And yet, for most of my life I tried to do exactly that. To be different; to modify who I was in order to conform to societal pressure, garner the approval of others, or meet some unhealthy or unrealistic standard. And when I couldn’t do that, I would hide what I didn’t like, or apologize for it. Talk about being exhausting and a recipe for feeling perpetually inadequate!

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Today I know better. That while far from perfect, I’m made in the image of the most-high God. And that instead of trying to be someone different, what I really need to learn is how to be authentically me.

Authenticity was the theme of the talk I gave last month at the “Women on the Way” Catholic Women’s conference in Richmond, Virginia, and something God has been teaching me a lot about recently.

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On the surface, it sounds really simple. “Just be yourself!” But being authentic requires courage, vulnerability and sometimes exposes the deepest, most flawed and unredeemed parts of who we are. That’s not easy or comfortable.

And yet, authenticity is also beautiful, captivating and the thing that allows us to connect most deeply with other people.

As I stood in front of 400 women that Saturday, I was real. Real about my struggles with an eating disorder in college, my failed marriage, the highs and lows of the last several years and also the incredible ways God has and continues to work in my life.

After the talk I met dozens of women who thanked me, cried as they relayed their personal trials or told me how inspired they were by what I shared. Turns out authenticity was exactly what they wanted…what they needed. And I know the same is true for me – that the more authentically I live, the more fulfilling, enjoyable and God-honoring my life is.

I think about this as I observe the world around me; the birds in the sky, fish in the sea, and animals and plants that aren’t trying to be anything but what God made them to be. And there is simplicity and joy in that! Just look at Mugsy and Nimits at the beach chasing each other and running around being dogs.

They had the time of their life and Natalie and I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing as we watched them.

I imagine that when we are authentic God does the same. That He delights in us being fully the person He created us to be. That He marvels at the diversity of His creation and loves when we embrace the unique way He made each one of us.

This morning as I finish up a jog with my new running partner, Blanca, a forty-something, 4’9 single mom and tortilla maker, I am well aware of that diversity. She doesn’t have a car, speaks less English than I do Spanish (which makes our conversations quite entertaining and reliant on hand gestures) and yet, we meet every morning at 5:45 a.m. to do a short run before aerobics.

After our jog she hops in my car and I drive us to class. We have become fast friends and after we get our wooden steps, she stands next to me. I look down and can’t help but chuckle. My size 10.5 shoe looks like a ski compared to her tiny sneaker.

Dear God, don’t let me step on her today, I think to myself.

Blanca looks at me curiously but since I can’t explain that in Spanish, I simply put my foot next to hers and point.

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We both laugh and even more so when I put my arm around her shoulders and her head rests easily on mine. We giggle at our reflection in the mirror and the stark difference in our size and appearance causes a few other women around us to notice and do the same.

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I imagine that I’ll meet a lot more “Blanca’s” over the course of my world travels and there will be plenty of times when I am clearly “different” than those around me. My prayer is that I will be authentically me in each moment. That I will celebrate their uniqueness just as I do my own, embracing every bit of who God made me to be.

 

 

 

The Right Question

Street signs.

Yeah, they don’t exist in Mexico. At least not with much frequency or consistency. Which poses a small problem when you don’t have GPS, a data plan on your phone that allows you to use Google maps and you’re trying to find a place you’ve never been.

Such was the case when Natalie and I ventured out for church on Sunday morning. We did our homework, and found the only Catholic Mass in English south of the border as well as an English-speaking non-denominational service that was relatively close. As two military-trained girls, we were confident in our abilities.

Rachel in Qatar

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We looked up the locations of each respective church, took pictures of the map and directions (so we could refer to them when we were on the road and didn’t have access to wifi) and headed fearlessly into the unknown Mexican landscape.

Finding the Catholic Church was easy – it was right off the main road. Finding Calvary Chapel proved to be much more difficult.

“We’re looking for Calle Articulo Tercero,” Natalie informs me as we head south on the main road.

She’s the driver and I’m navigating.

Easy enough, I think. We pass one street, then another….and then another.

“Hmmm….I’m not seeing any street signs….are you?” I ask.

“No…that’s weird.”

Natalie looks at the picture of the map on her phone while we wait at a stoplight. We’re in the general vicinity and decide to make the next right-hand turn.

She throws out another name of a street and I search diligently. But there’s not a street sign to be found.

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Circles, backtracking and running into dead ends ensues. Time is ticking and if we don’t find this place soon, we’re going to miss the service.

“I think we should ask for directions,” I announce. After only two weeks of Spanish lessons, thinking I can clearly communicate or understand the language is overly ambitious to say the least, but it’s our only hope.

There’s a friendly looking woman with her young son setting up a table for the local market that we’ve somehow run into. We stop and I roll down the window.

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“Perdon, Senora,” I begin. “Tengo una pregunta por favor. Donde esta la iglesia, Calvary Chapel?” (Excuse me, Miss. I have a question, please. Where is the Calvary Chapel Church?)

I’m inwardly pleased with myself. These Spanish classes are really paying off!

The woman stares at me blankly and says something that sounds like a question. I repeat the same thing, but she still looks confused. Meanwhile, eight to ten people walking to the market gather around my window and want to know what is going on.

I don’t know what they are saying but it’s clear they want to help. I decide to try one more time, “Donde esta la iglesia Calvary Chapel?”

There are more looks of confusion until the young boy’s eyes suddenly grow wide. He says something rapidly in Spanish to his Mom and then she exclaims, “Ahhh! El Chapel Calvario!”

“Si, si!” I exclaim. Finally, we’re getting somewhere!

All at once three people are talking and pointing. It’s rapid fire and all I get is that we have to go straight and take a left at some point. I nod my head feigning understanding, before I say “Gracias” and roll up the window.

Natalie looks at me hopefully…as if my three years of high school Spanish are going to save the day.

“I didn’t catch 90% of what they said, but I think it’s that way,” I say pointing behind us.

So, we pull a U-turn and continue on.

Another five minutes of wrong turns and we are clearly lost. Natalie is ready to give up, but I’m determined. “Let’s just ask one more time,” I suggest.

We spot a couple walking and pull over. I roll down the window, repeat the same question as before and decide to add at the end, “Yo hablo un poco de espanol.” (I speak a little Spanish).

I’m hoping one or both of them speaks English, but when he opens his mouth, it’s all in Spanish…and much too fast for me to decipher. I can tell he’s asked me a question but I have no idea what it is.

What I want to say is, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t understand,” or “What did you say?” But in this moment, all of these phrases escape me. Flustered, I open my mouth and say the first thing that comes to mind.por-que“Por Que?” (Why)?

As soon as the words leave my lips I realize this makes absolutely no sense, but it’s too late.

The man looks at me, drops his head into his hands and shakes it before he starts to laugh. Even Natalie knows this is the wrong response and she’s laughing too.

“No comprendo!” I offer quickly, trying to salvage some of my Spanish-speaking self-respect.

“Si, claro,” he chuckles. (Yes, obviously). And now I’m laughing too.

After we regain our composure, he gives me directions I still don’t understand and we drive off. By the grace of God, we manage to find this church, attend the service and head home.

On the way back we are still amused by the whole escapade.

“Por que….por que?!?” I lament to Natalie. “That’s the best I could come up with??”

We have a good laugh about it, but after the fact I realized two things:

First of all, my Spanish skills need a LOT of work. And secondly, and more importantly, “Why?” is often not the right question to ask.

When my marriage first started unraveling, I found myself asking “Why?” a lot.

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Why did this happen to me? Why did I deserve this? Why would God call me to marry a man who would hurt me so deeply? And then after it ended, Why would He allow me to suffer, telling me again and again to not quit on the marriage, all the while knowing it would eventually end in divorce?

I have my theories. Plausible ones, like I made a mistake, heard God wrong, or that my former husband had simply operated in his own free will.

Idealistic ones, like I needed to go through this storm in my life to be who I am today, or that he did.

Then there are the flat out wrong theories, like God made a mistake. Or that I was simply punished for the men’s hearts I’ve broken over the years.

But, in the end, none of those theories can be proven and what I’ve finally come to understand is that I might never know why and even if I do, it won’t change my reality. What I really need to know is “what now?”

When I finally asked God that question, I stopped feeling like a victim and finally felt empowered to take a step and move forward. Turns out He had a lot to tell me. And He still does.

Sometimes when I ask God, “What now?” I don’t quite understand His directions. Often I just have a general sense of where He’s leading. But He never laughs when I am confused or gets frustrated when I take a wrong turn. He’s the ultimate GPS. He sees the big picture, knows every possible detour and side street and as long as I follow His voice, I can know with confidence, that I’m on the right path.
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Even now, as Natalie and I step out on faith to live this “Great Enlivening,” we don’t really know why God has asked us to do this, nor do we know where this journey will end. But as we continue to ask “what now,” we trust He will lead us exactly where we are supposed to go…even if it’s to a place where the streets have no names.

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving Toast

Dear friends and family,

To those near and far,

We’re sending our love

To wherever you are!

May today be a day

Where pleasures abound.

May you drink in the sights,

the smells, and the sounds.

May your turkey be stuffed,

And your cranberry jellied.

May you smile and embrace

The fullest of bellies.

May your visits be filled

With love and with truth,

And when it’s all over,

May your journeys be smooth.

But before we disperse

To our couches and beds,

Please raise your glass,

For these words must be said:

Cheers and Salud!

To friends old and new,

Please know in your heart,

We are thankful for you!

He’s just standing there on the edge of the cliff, about forty feet above the crashing waves, staring majestically off into the horizon. His slender grey body and long legs are so delicate that your eye could easily miss him, but he’s so close to me I can see every detail. He’s a handsome crane, although I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing here, since I thought that they were fresh water birds… but I’m happy he decided to hang out by my balcony.

Two weeks ago, Rachel and I crossed the border into Baja California, Mexico. We entered the country in a non-traditional way… we drove. According to the U.S. Department of State, driving across the border into Mexico is “discouraged… due to safety concerns.” But what’s a worldwide adventure without a little risk?

The drive was surprisingly simple, especially considering the fact that street signs don’t exist here. But we found our way to Puerto Nuevo without incident. Once we arrived, we saw that the house we rented has the most spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. From the balcony, I’ve already seen amazing sunsets, pelicans, dolphins and killer whales! But today, I’m graced by the presence of a beautiful crane.

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I take a deep breath and look out across the ocean with sheer appreciation for the beauty in front of me. “How did I get so lucky?” I think to myself as I take a sip of my coffee.

Woof, woof, woof!!!!

“Ugh,” I say over my shoulder, “Nimitz! Knock it off!” He’s standing behind me on the balcony and has clearly spotted the crane. He’s also decided that it poses a level-one security threat.

Woof, woof – WOOF!!!

“Seriously Nims, that’s enough!” I turn around to look at him, and my heart stops. “Mugsy! No!!” I shout as I watch my chunky white pup shimmy through the railing of the balcony and take a giant leap off the side. The drop is nearly eight feet and she lands on a sliver of land near the cliffs’ edge – in a bed of cactus. I look at her in complete disbelief, and then, she climbs out of the cactus and starts running towards the crane, who’s perched on the edge of the cliff.

“Shit!” I shout as I race into the house to get my shoes and the keys. We have locked gates all over our property due to the higher levels of theft and crime in Mexico. This is great for security, but super inconvenient when you’re trying to save a dog from imminent death.

Luckily, the crane is no fool, and he’s long gone by the time I get the gate open. But Mugsy is convinced that he’s lurking nearby, so she starts running down the edge of the cliff. “Great,” I say to myself, “this is how I’m going to die – chasing a dog off a cliff in Mexico.”

I lose sight of her as she rounds a narrow corner, and I shout “Mugsy! Get back here right now!” Something in my tone must have conveyed the severity of the situation, because she turns around and runs back through the gate of the house. “Oh thank God.” I say with relief.

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The cliff…

I take Mugsy inside and start plucking the cactus spurs out of her belly, and I try to calm myself down. As I slather her with Neosporin, I start thinking of ways to strengthen the barrier on the balcony. Or other ways to deter her from taking a second flying leap off the side. I chuckle to myself as I think about how badly she wanted to catch that crane, what was she going to do if she caught it? Did she even see the cliff? Probably not, since she was so focused on the bird. I laugh again as I realize – I’m not so different from this dog.

How many times have I chased something I was sure I wanted? Or fixed my eyes so intently on achieving the next goal that I couldn’t see the cliff that was right in front of me? Honestly… more times than I’d care to admit.

I spent years striving to achieve – the promotion, the house, the car, and the marriage. I was sure that if I could just grab the next thing, I would be satisfied. But I never was. I didn’t realize that, like Mugsy, I was just chasing one crane after another down the edge of a cliff.

Until one day, when I had caught them all. I had the job, the car, the house, and the husband; but something was still missing. I had everything that was supposed to satisfy me, but I still had an aching need for something more. Frantically, I started looking for the next crane, the next goal, or the next achievement that I could add to my list. But it wasn’t there.

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“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

So instead of staring hopelessly at an empty horizon, waiting for the next focal point to appear, it was time to look for something new. For the first time in my life, I turned my eyes towards God, and asked him to guide me towards my purpose. And that’s where this amazing journey began.

Now, my life looks completely different than it once did. I’m not working; traveling around the world; and living out of a suitcase in Mexico. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or where I’ll end up in twelve months – but really, who does? And even though it looks different than I expected, I feel truly satisfied for the first time; because I know without a doubt that I’m chasing God’s purpose for my life.

I look down at Mugsy, who’s sleeping on the couch. Her little feet are moving and her eyes are flickering; surely she’s dreaming about victoriously conquering that crane. I guess I can’t be too mad at her; we’re all prone to chasing the wrong things from time to time. Luckily, Mugsy has me to bring her back inside when she gets too close to the cliff’s edge. And I have God to do the same for me.

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What Would You Do?

He is gangly, unkempt and expressionless. Over a camouflaged jacket are slung a few bags, carrying what I imagine is everything he owns.

I’ve seen a lot of homeless people in the 24 hours I’ve been in San Francisco and each time my heart aches a little. Over the years I’ve met, given money to, prayed with and befriended several people in the same position. I think of Eric, Deocito and countless other African American men I came to know through volunteering weekly at my Church’s soup kitchen.

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Perhaps that’s why I feel a certain connection to this man.

As he approaches, I try to make eye contact and smile; something homeless people tell me they rarely, if ever experience, but he stares straight ahead.

When he is about 15 feet away from me an empty soda can falls out of his bag behind him. He turns briefly but decides it’s not worth going back for and continues walking.

I decide to pick it up after I pass him, but before I do, I make one final attempt at eye contact.

Nada. He doesn’t look at me. But instead I hear an unmistakable sound. And then I see it. In seemingly slow motion, a white ball of spit comes flying in my direction. It arcs in front of me and I watch in amazement as it descends and lands perfectly on top of my right tennis shoe. Then it disappears into the cloth.

Wait, did I just get spit on?

I search the ground around my feet wondering if perhaps my eyes played tricks on me but there is no evidence of any wetness on the pavement. Nope, this guy definitely just spit on me.

As I try to process what just happened my mind races. First with indignation; what did I do to deserve that? Then, when the initial anger subsides I think immediately of other people I know who have experienced something similar – in particular, Jesus, civil rights activists and Vietnam veterans. I feel sad, knowing many endured far worse than this and they didn’t deserve it. And finally, I am simply in awe. How in the world did he manage to hit my foot with such accuracy? Does he practice spitting with moving targets regularly, or was this just his lucky day?

I say out loud the only thing that comes to mind. “Seriously?!”

I turn around, hoping for some sort of acknowledgement, if not an apology. But he’s already well past me, nonchalantly strolling down the street. It’s as if he’s completely unaware of my presence or he’s simply relegated my worth as a human being to nothing more than a spittoon.

The feisty, fearless part of me wants to confront this man, question his actions and give him a piece of my mind. The logical, realistic part of me knows doing so is not safe, smart or likely to accomplish anything constructive.

I’m struggling with an urge to respond in some way when I recall that incredibly difficult and unpopular Bible verse: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” (Matthew 5:39)

There’s no way I’m running after this guy and offering him my left foot to spit on, but I remember another verse in Matthew Chapter 5 that talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.

Point taken, God.

So, I pray and ask Him to bless this homeless man, whoever he is.

There was a time in the not too distant past when someone spitting on me would have ruined my day, or at least my morning. But now there’s a resiliency inside of me because I know who I am in Christ. That no matter what other people say or do, I am invaluable because I am made in the image of God and loved unconditionally by Him.

As I continue walking I can’t help but think of the giant Red wood trees Natalie and I saw only a few days earlier.

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Besides being majestic, enormous and ancient, I learned that because of the tannin in their bark, they are supernaturally resistant to insects, fire, fungus and disease. I like to think of God as a “tannin” of sorts – giving me thicker skin and protecting me from some of the evil and hate in this world.

Of course, there are some things that can and do hurt me, just like a strong enough fire will damage a Redwood. We saw this firsthand with one particular tree. There was a large opening along the base where the blaze had burned through the thick trunk and hollowed out a 8-foot-wide and 25-foot-tall space within it.

The park guide told us that one hundred years ago this space was actually used as a “hotel room” of sorts that people could rent to literally sleep in a tree.

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Today, visitors can step inside to explore the space, which Natalie and I did.

But it won’t be this way for too long (relatively speaking). The guide told us that Redwoods heal themselves from the outside in and within 60 to 80 years, this opening will no longer exist, though the hole inside the tree will remain forever.

I kind of think the same is true for me. Going through a divorce was like a fire that penetrated my heart, leaving me open, vulnerable and hollow inside.

But God has and continues to heal me. And the new space in my heart has given me a greater capacity to be filled by God’s love and share it with others.

Which I think I have. Or at least I try to.

When I tell Natalie about the spitting experience, I do so with more amusement than anything else. Like me, she’s fairly shocked by the story, but considering San Francisco is a city where people to this day walk around completely nude, I guess we shouldn’t be.

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I had all but forgotten the incident until just the other night when we watched the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” If you’ve ever seen this movie, you may remember there are two scenes in it where people get spit on….and it’s a good thing! Apparently in the Greek culture, it is a way to ward off the devil and wish someone luck or bless them.

While I’m pretty confident this homeless man didn’t spit on me with the same intent, it did bring a smile to my face and offered me a fresh perspective. Though it didn’t seem like it at the time, perhaps this experience really was a blessing in disguise. After all, it challenged me to a greater level of humility, allowed me to empathize with others in a new way and ultimately, offered me a chance to demonstrate Christ-like love and forgiveness.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I want to be spit on or slapped in the check for that matter. But I hope I do become the kind of person that is willing to turn the other one. That I am willing to suffer if necessary, knowing that in doing so I am united with the sufferings of Christ.

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Because even when I am burned and left empty and exposed by a “fire,” I know that God can heal me, if I let him. It may happen slowly, I may never be the same on the inside, but I truly believe this is how it’s supposed to be. After all, the empty place in my heart doesn’t have to be a wasteland of pain, regret and bitterness. It can become a storehouse of God’s love, mercy, peace and joy.

And that is a good thing.

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Embracing the Unexpected

“Hmm, that’s weird… the gas light is on again,” I mumble to myself.

I just filled up the tank two hours ago, and I’ve only driven about 250 miles. Normally a tank will last for at least 350 miles before the light comes on. I guess I’ll pull off at the next exit and fill up again. I’m driving by myself from Tucson to San Diego today. Rachel decided to stay in Tucson for an extra day to visit with her friends and is flying to meet me tomorrow.

I’m in the middle of nowhere Arizona, right next to the Mexican border. I passed through three border patrol stations; which are basically checkpoints where the agents ask you where you came from, where you’re going and if you’re smuggling any people or drugs in your backseat. Each time I stopped, the agents looked skeptically at my overflowing car and asked me a few more questions than normal. I guess it didn’t help that when one agent said “What do you do for a living?” I answered with an uncertain “Um… I guess I’m kind of a travel blogger?” Apparently, this is not the sort of response they’re looking for. Yet despite my questionable answers, overflowing vehicle and barking dogs, I was allowed to continue my journey to California.

As I’m approaching the state-line, I start to see huge windmills dotting the horizon, cloudless skies and a mountain line in the distance. “We’re home puppies!” I exclaim to the dogs, who are sleeping in the back of the SUV. I moved around a lot as a kid, but I consider California my home. My mom was always adamant that no matter where we lived, we would go back to visit family in California every summer. Some of my favorite childhood memories take place against the backdrop of the Santa Cruz tide-pools. I know that we’re only going to be here for a couple weeks, but I’m still overcome with excitement to be home.

Santa Cruz tide pools

Santa Cruz tide pools

Vrrrrrrrrrrmmmm!

I’m quickly snapped out of my California daydreams by the sound of my RPM’s skyrocketing. I have the cruise control set at 78 mph but all of a sudden my RPM’s are around 5,000, rather than the typical 2,500. “Oh no,” I think to myself, “I’m three hours from San Diego, by myself, and I have a car full of stuff… this isn’t going to be good.”

I drove the next few hours with a sense of heightened awareness. Paying attention to every little nuance my car had to offer. I made it to San Diego safely, but based on the noise, the lagging acceleration and the rapid decrease in MPG’s, it was clear that something was wrong.

“We’re not exactly sure what it is,” Ryan, the Toyota guy, says “it might be the exhaust, the brakes, or the transmission. Prepare yourself to spend around $3.5k.”

“Ugh,” I think to myself as the wheels of panic started to turn in my mind, “that’s a major financial hit, and we haven’t even left the country yet!” I take a deep breath and try to quiet my mind. When I signed up for this adventure, I knew there would be bumps in the road, I just didn’t think they’d come so soon.

“Two days.” Toyota-Ryan says. “I’ll get it done as quickly as I can, but I need at least two days to figure out everything that’s going on with the car.”

I take a deep breath, and try to look at the bright side of this equation – I could’ve been stranded alone in the desert, but I wasn’t, I made it to my sister’s house in San Diego and my car will be fixed in two days. Besides, there are worse places to be stuck than San Diego, California.

When Rachel arrives, we try to make the most of our time with my sister, Katie, and brother-in-law, Nick. Their house is a cozy, warm and welcoming California bungalow. And if you’re not familiar with the definition of a bungalow, I’m pretty sure it means – a home that is entirely too small for four people, four dogs and three cats. You guessed it, Katie and Nick are animal lovers too.

That night, I’m about to head to bed on the couch when I notice that Nimitz won’t stop whining, crying and staring under the TV stand. If you’ve met Nimitz, you know that this is his universal language for “I put my tennis ball under here and now I can’t get it… help me!” So I get up, walk over to the TV stand and reach my hand underneath. I start feeling around for the fuzzy, familiar shape of a tennis ball, when I touch it. It’s hairy and wiry, and it’s definitely not a tennis ball.

I quickly make my way to the master bedroom and knock, “Um… Nick!” I say franticly, “I just touched something under the TV stand and I don’t know what it is but it was hairy and it moved!” Nick, being the big, strong, navy-man that he is, jumped into action and went out into the living room, where he discovered what was under the TV stand…  a rat.

Rachel and I bolted into the spare bedroom, shut the door, and jumped onto the bed. It turns out that there’s a limit to our bravery, and that limit is a rat.

This was basically us...

This was basically us…

From inside the spare room we hear Nick, Katie (who’s apparently much tougher than we are) and the dogs working feverishly to corner the rat.

“There he is! Get him Nims!”

“Wait, he went behind the couch!”

A few minutes go by with this soundtrack before I hear Nick say, “Oh, ok… Problem solved!”

Rachel and I yell from the spare bedroom “Is it safe to come out?” and after several assurances from Nick, we finally emerge. I walk into the living room and ask, “What happened?” then Katie and Nick filled us in on how the rat raced from the couch to the buffet and back to the TV stand before he realized he was cornered. Then he tried to make a break for it! He ran across the living room towards the front door when – bam! Mugsy nabbed him. I won’t describe what happened next, but let’s just say – the rat is no more.

We spend the next few minutes laughing as we recount the whole scene – Nimitz’s bloodhound-like nose, Mugsy’s fearlessness and the two self-proclaimed “adventurers” hiding in the guest room. After that it’s time for bed, so I wash my hands for the 37th time and lay down on the couch. Like I do every night, I write out a prayer to God. I thank him for time with my sister, and ask him to take care of the little rat’s soul. I like to think that all of God’s creatures have a place in His kingdom, even the icky ones. And finally, I ask God to help with my car. I tell Him that I’ll spend my money however He sees fit, but it would be great if it weren’t on a new transmission!

The next morning, I get a call from Ryan, who tells me that my car is done and he even threw in an oil change for free.

“Thanks!” I say, “But tell me, what’s the damage?”

“Well,” he says with an upbeat tone, “it wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected. Just a simple exhaust leak that we could fix in-house! It’s only $483.”

“Now that’s a number I can handle!” I hang up the phone and tell Rachel the news. We’re both visibly relieved and after we pick up the car we decide to celebrate with lunch in San Diego.

When we get back to Katie’s house, I check the mail and some of it’s for me. I nonchalantly open the first letter, and when I look at it, I gasp.

“What is it?” Rachel asks.

I look over at her, holding the envelope in my hand and a smile spreads across my face. “It’s a check…” I say, “for 492 dollars.” I stare at the check in amazement, “I guess I overpaid my personal property taxes a few months ago.” We both laugh and know that this was no coincidence.

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That evening, I laid down and wrote out my nightly prayer. I thanked God for all of the ways he blesses me, but mostly, I thanked him for the beauty of the unexpected. It comes in many forms, sometimes it’s a rat when you expect a tennis ball; but sometimes, it’s a check for the exact amount you needed, right when you needed it. I have a feeling that there will be many more unexpected moments on this journey, and that’s ok. All I need to do is have a little faith, lean in and embrace them.

Screeeeeech…screeeeeech…screeeeeech.

The sound of the swing is annoying but I don’t stop. I’m a good 75 to 100 lbs heavier and 25 to 30 years older than the average playground user but just as thrilled as any kid to be at this park.

It’s a cloudless, 75-degree Fall day in Tucson, Arizona and I can’t help but marvel at the magnificent mountain view just in the distance.

I’ve assessed the swing set and deemed it safe and sturdy enough to support me.  So despite its cries of protest, I kick my legs, lean back and climb higher.

With each pass the wind whooshes in my ears. My stomach flutters as I reach the height of the swing, my body momentarily weightless, suspended just above the earth and below a crystal blue desert sky.

I close my eyes and smile. I’ve forgotten how much fun this is.

swinging

There’s a mom sitting on a bench engrossed in her cellphone while her two kids zip down the slide, giggle and chase each other around with reckless abandon.

I’ve gone unnoticed until they run past me on their way to the monkey bars. The girl, about 5, slows down as she passes. Her eyes squint and the skeptical up and down look she gives me says it all. “Grown ups aren’t supposed to play on playgrounds.”

“Yeah, I know kid,” I think to myself. “And they’re not supposed to cash out their investments at 33 and go travel the world with no definitive plan for the future either…but here I am.”

Expectations.

At some point, early on, they became a part of my life and I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them ever since.

There are expectations about what to do, who to be, how to look, what to own and so much more. Some expectations are self-imposed. Others I’ve adopted based on societal norms and the influence of others. And still other expectations I don’t even know I have, until they go unmet. But these expectations have greatly influenced and largely dictated the course of my life for more than three decades…until now.

Deciding to leave everything behind and go on a 12 to 18 month trip around the world was a blatant and unapologetic assault on those expectations. It was a ninja kick to limitations, a war cry for freedom from routine and a bold determination to break out of the “box” I’m told to live in.

I have this idealistic image of myself in my mind– a bad-ass road warrior, a “She-Ra” of sorts, rebelling against all that is “normal and expected” and charging fearlessly into the unknown.

Photo must be credited to Classic Media

Ok, maybe with a tiny bit of fear.

I’ve gotten many wide-eyed looks of concern, enthusiastic smiles, words of caution and confessions of jealousy when I share my plan with friends and family. The overwhelming majority of people tell me they would love to do something similar, though several have admitted that even if it was possible, they probably wouldn’t have the courage/guts/balls to do so.

I get it. Nothing about this experience is safe, predictable or guaranteed. It’s not logical, financially wise or routine. And yet, those are precisely the reasons why I am so thrilled about this adventure.

I don’t think that a risk-averse life with more money and lots of comfort is the recipe for true fulfillment; which is a good thing, because right now I’m living the complete opposite way.

Last week as we headed from Dallas to Tucson, there was one morning where we woke up not knowing where we would be staying that night. For two people, that’s not a huge deal, but having two dogs as well makes it a little more challenging.

Natalie went to work looking up vacation rentals and other such places online and managed to find a “casita” in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They were dog friendly, very reasonably priced and located just outside the town…on a farm.

Though I consider myself a southern belle, I certainly wasn’t raised with livestock. But for two days, we hung out with horses, chickens, roosters, some sort of alpaca like animal (we’re still not sure) and goats.

Does anyone know what this is??

“Alpaca-like animal” –  Does anyone know what this is??

Oh yeah, and the fattest pig I have ever seen. Seriously.

pig

Apparently roosters are early risers and insistent that those around them are too. But being awoken at the crack of dawn had its perks because I was able to see the most spectacular sunrise just over the mountains.

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There have been many beautiful, unexpected experiences as well as countless seemingly ordinary ones over the last week. Not all are noteworthy or glamorous. But here are a few of the things that now define our “new normal” on this road trip.

Natalie and I:

  1. Are often confused about the date, day, time zone and where exactly we are
  1. Make every decision – where to eat, stop, and sleep – based on pet friendliness
  1. Live out of a suitcase, spend most of our days in workout clothes and have no desire to buy anything else we will have to pack or find a place for in the car
  1. Visit gas stations, rest stops and dog parks nearly every day and are becoming experts at rationing food, water, dog treats and clean underwear
  1. Are starting to think home-cooked meals, comfortable beds and 80 mph speed limits are the best things… ever.

I think about this as I continue swinging and can’t help but laugh at my “new life.”

While I’m no longer ruled by societal expectations, I’m not exactly trailblazing or leading a rebellion against them either.

But then it occurs to me. Perhaps I don’t need to be “She-Ra.” Maybe I don’t need to buck against all expectations and routines, I just need to find and live by the ones that are healthy and empowering.

Like being Christ’s light to the people I meet on this adventure. Like being fully present and loving those around me. Like making time every day to pray, listen to God and become the woman He created me to be.

These expectations seem so simple. Almost too simple. But maybe, just maybe these are the kind of expectations we are supposed to have. The ones that we learn to love, not only because they bring us fulfillment and joy, but because they bless other people and make the world a better place as well.